Director Spotlight: Panic Room


Panic Room, the 2002 film by David Finch, is a prime example of a close-quarters thriller. Now I am biased in favor of this type of movie—limited set and location, small cast, tight focus—to begin with; Sleuth, from 1972 and again in 2007, is another excellent example. It forces the filmmakers to focus more than usual on their craft, storytelling, acting, etc., and less on spectacle. David Fincher is a director who knows his craft, obviously, but he does have a tendency to rely on spectacle; not explosions or gun battles, per say, but trick camera shots, shocking visuals, weird characters, and so forth. He does employ some of that here, but it’s significantly toned down.

Panic RoomThe hero of our story is Jodie Foster, playing a recently divorced mother. She and her 12-ish year-old daughter, played by Kristen Stewart, purchase and move into an impossibly spacious New York City home. Like, so big it’s suspension of disbelief-breaking. In real life this house would cost what I assume would be a billion dollars. Anyway, the house was previously owned by a reclusive millionaire who passed away. It’s mentioned in passing that it’s rumored there were millions of dollars squirreled away in the house somewhere, but no one thinks much of it.

No one but Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker, and Dwight Yoakam, who play somewhat inept would-be robbers. Well, Leto is inept; Whitaker knows what he’s doing, but is in over his head dealing with the other two; and Yoakam is a psychopath. They don’t realize Foster and Stewart are in the house, because the house was supposed to be vacant for another week, so that obviously complicates things. Upon realizing they have intruders, mom and daughter hide out in the titular panic room. This is really inconvenient for the crooks, because what they need is in the panic room. Hijinks  ensue.

Panic Room displays a mastery of tension building rarely seen in modern thrillers. Parts of this building effort are mentioned in passing and then never revisited—namely, Foster’s hinted-at claustrophobia—but at no point does Fincher resort to cheap jump-scares or deus ex machina problems or solutions. As the movie goes on, the situation just gets worse and worse for everyone involved and the tension becomes almost unbearable. It’s great.

Worth noting, due to developments occurring after Panic Room‘s release, Kristen Stewart? Actually a pretty decent actress when not working on garbage scripts. She’s good in Panic Room; not run-and-tell-your-friends good, but child actor good. (She’s also good in Runaways, where she played Joan Jett; and decent in Adventureland; her wooden reputation is Twilight‘s fault, is what I’m getting at.)

Overall, Panic Room is both a very satisfying thriller, and one of Fincher’s least weird films. This is a movie you can safely watch with your mom, unlike Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Seven (by the way, Dave, thanks for that). It’s also on Netflix Instant (for now), so there’s no excuse! Watch it now.

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About Jonathan MacFarlane

Jonathan is a professional curmudgeon and amateur layabout. He makes art at FailureWhale.com; follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/j_macfarlane.

Posted on January 20, 2012, in Director Spotlight, Film Review, Lonely Devil Review and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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